The roots of 'failing' schools

The roots of 'failing' schools

November 24th, 2012 in Opinion Times

When the county school system applied for a state "innovation-zone" grant in the previous school year to boost lagging student achievement scores in impoverished urban schools, it failed. With better proposals, Nashville and Memphis received about $27 million from the state's Race to the Top federal award to improve urban student achievement. By contrast, Hamilton County's school district was given $600,000 to help it devise a more worthy "I-Zone" plan. School officials here now say they're ready to try again next month for an I-Zone grant. Here's hoping for a successful application.

Report card data recently released by the county school system, described elsewhere in the Times Free Press today by education reporter Kevin Hardy, underscores why the five designated I-Zone schools here need serious help.

Scores in other county schools, and across the state as well, generally improved. But in the county's five I-Zone schools -- Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Orchard Knob Middle, and Orchard Knob and Woodmore elementaries -- scores remained largely subpar.

Over three-quarters of Brainerd High School students scored below the basic category for math; just 8 percent were proficient or advanced and only 18.5 percent met or exceeded standard scores in English. Declining scores at Dalewood Middle showed less than 10 percent reading at grade level, and not quite 14 percent meeting or exceeding in math standards. Scores were somewhat better in the other schools, but still they were nowhere near normative educational standards.

This isn't surprising -- and that's the larger problem. It is dismal scores like these that put these schools in the state's bottom 5 percent in achievement scores, and thus on the state's takeover list if the county's school district continues to fail to elevate their scores above their current "failing school" rating. Yet the "failing" here is generally not the teachers' fault, or the fault of the individual schools. These specific schools, and the teachers themselves, have been doing the best they can with the resources they have been given.

The failure at issue is, and long has been, the dearth of attention, commitment and resources by the school system and its funding agencies -- state and local government. In all of these schools, as in other urban, largely minority schools in Nashville, Memphis and Knoxville, denial about the scope of the poverty-related problems and the requirements to fix them has ruled. In fact, most all of the students in these schools come from impoverished circumstances and neighborhoods. They lack early learning and educational support, regular meals and safe and constructive environments -- these are the roots of so-called "failing schools."

Grant money from the state for I-Zone schools is designed, at last, to strengthen the resources the schools need to address the learning deficiencies of students raised in such socio-economic circumstances. State grants for I-Zone schools in Memphis and Nashville last year are being used to provide smaller classes and more teachers in primary grades, teacher mentoring, "interventionists" to work with struggling students, new technology, after-school programs and longer and more numerous school days.

These extra resources have long been needed to deal with the effects of poverty on learning and success in school. The irony is that urban schools with high levels of students in poverty have been blamed and declared as "failing schools" so long, when all they needed is more help.